Next year will be the 20th year I have served as a United Methodist Minister, beginning my pastoral ministry at the Lynnville-Poyner’s charge in southern Graves County, Kentucky while a senior in college.
As I reflect over this period of time, perhaps the greatest disillusionment that I have had is with the United Methodist Connection. Let me first testify that the Connection has been very good to me: because of it, I received a quality education. I have a pension that will probably allow me to retire comfortably. I am presently serving a very fine church in our annual conference. I have also been fortunate to serve as a delegate at our Jurisidictional Conference, and spoke on an issue on the floor of General Conference in 2004 as an alternate delegate.
But my concern is that there are a lot of “I’s” in the above paragraph. How is the Connection benefiting the people in our pews? And more importantly, how is the Connection benefiting the Kingdom of God and in spreading the good news of Christ?
Some say that we need to be more connectional. I do recall in my childhood and youth attending conference camps, district youth events, and districts gatherings on 5th Sunday evenings for worship together – and I recall such events with much fondness. But as I have later realized, United Methodism was already losing members even then. Was “being connectional” really helping the Church?
If we say “Connectional” in a United Methodist context, it often means:
• Pastoral Appointments
• Annual Conference
• District clergy and Council on Ministries meetings
• UMW and UMM gatherings
• Paying your apportionments
Of course, that’s grossly unfair and inaccurate… but it is the general perception out there. The question now is not just a question of public relations and teaching, but of survival: who needs each other worse, the Connection, or individual churches? My hunch is at present, the United Methodist Church needs local churches more than local churches need the United Methodist Church.
Like most organizations and organized entities, it may be that the United Methodist Church has become self-serving, rather that serving in the capacity originally intended. Our understanding of the truth, our mission, and the way we live out our faith is dictated by popular vote. The problem with that is that I’m not sure Christianity affirms democracy nor acknowledges it as the truth. This loss of authority ends up affirming mediocrity and adding to the already pervasive individualism that is running rampant in America.
We have to take leadership seriously – not based on entitlement, not based on quotas, not based on diversity or inclusivity – but based on gifts of courage, humility, willingness to live by discipline and courage to act with authority. These are the people we need to be church lay leaders, annual and general conference delegates, UMYF presidents, pastors, and bishops.
In their book Where Resident Aliens Live, Hauerwas and Willimon make this comment about seminary students, which I think could be expanded to church leadership both lay and clerical alike:
The truth of the matter is that the best and brightest are not coming to seminary today. That should not be surprising, given the loss of the church’s social power and status. Those of talent look elsewhere for success.
Yet we know that God has given us people of talent, and we as the church must call them into ministry whether they want to or not. We must say, “You have the gifts, and we need you.” That is a true call, since it’s not a matter of whether you really “want” to be in the ministry. - from Where Resident Aliens Live, © 1996, pp. 65-66
The United Methodist Connection can do something about it – if it will. But to do so it will have to be less self-serving and more in service to Christ. That might mean resembling the government less and the Kingdom of God more. Democracy seeks to please as many as possible. Christianity seeks to proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected…a stumbling block to those looking for worldly power, but authority and wisdom to those called by God.